Thursday, December 25, 2008

Eartha Kitt "I Want to be Evil"

Orson Welles called her the most exciting woman in the world. There certainly was none with more raw charisma, class and charm. Born in South Carolina in 1927 her career spanned seven decades, television, stage, film, radio and cabaret. She recorded Santa Baby in 1953, starred as Cat Woman on TV's Batman (who else could have upstaged Julie Newmar?) and worked until the end. Born on Benjamin Franklin's birthday, she left on Christmas. Here she is in 1962, singing I Want to be Evil:

Beethoven's Ode to Freedom

On December 25, 1989, Leonard Bernstein gave a concert in Berlin celebrating the end of the the Berlin Wall. The centerpiece was the performance of Beethoven's 9th symphony (Ode to Joy) with the word Freude "Joy" changed to Freiheit or "Freedom" in the choral fourth movement. When Schiller wrote the original poem, to dedicate it to Freedom had been his intent. But out of fear that his use of Freiheit would be seen as support for the Napoleon, he changed his subject to the less controversial Freude.

According to Wikipedia, the orchestra and chorus for the 1989 Christmas concert were drawn from both East and West Germany, as well as the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Enjoy this special Christmas treat available at YouTube. Here is part I of the fourth movement, with the chorus beginning in part II:

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Festivus for the Rest of Us

Early this month, as a Nativity display was erected in the state house of Olympia, Washington, another sign was making the news. A purported "atheist" sign was erected there, not in order to celebrate anything, but to proclaim "there are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell." The sign did refer obliquely to the Winter Solistice, which is both a natural phenomeneon and a pagan holiday. And few people dispute that Christmas is suspiciously timed in relation to this event and the pagan holiday known as Yule or Saturnalia. But the timing of New Year's Day is just as coincidental. And the fact remains that the Nativity scene, presumably erected by Christians, did not feature a sign arguing that atheists will burn in hell. Nor have prior menorahs come with disclaimers proclaiming gentiles to be unclean.

Of course, this contrarian sign, displayed with the sole intent of annoying Christians (it did not criticize jihad, ouija or circumcision) was promptly stolen. And that made headlines too. Although I am not a believer, I have stated elsewhere that, in the words of Camille Paglia, I find that "atheism alone is a rotten corpse." There are an infinite number of things in which we don't believe. I don't care what you don't believe, just as much as I find it unhelpful, when planning a trip, to have a list of places that you are not interested in visiting. Life is too short to focus on the negative. We are born happy. But some of us spend an aweful lot of time trying to be unhappy.

One thing that I have long enjoyed is the classic sit-com, Seinfeld. In the episode "The Strike" George Costanza, one of the most eagerly miserable of characters in the history of comedy, is caught in one of his schemes, and in order to exculpate himself he ends up inviting his boss to dinner not for Christmas, but for his family's peculiar celebrations of Festivus, a holiday "for the rest of us." The episode is in part a sendup of the modern Political Correction of the Christmas season. The fact that the largest holiday of the Western year is for some people a holy day has become an excuse for the most awkward self-abasement and circumlocution. Festivus is portrayed as the sort of actually embarrassing holiday, with its feats of strength and its airing of grievances, which you might think the celebration of Jesus' birthday would have to be for people to be so fervent in their desire to avoid naming it.

This made-up holiday is so bizarre, and so appropriate for George and his disfunctional family, that you might think that it was invented specifically for Seinfeld. But it turns out that Seinfeld writer Daniel O'Keefe's father Dan had actually created Festivus in 1966 as a commemoration of his first date with his future wife. The original holiday, celebrated in February, did not feature an aluminum pole – a symbolically denuded Christmas tree. On Seinfeld, celebrants had a chance to tell off everybody who had annoyed them during the year. And the hellish holiday didn't end until someone pinned the head of the household in a wrestling match. If you want to know how the original feast was celebrated, you can read O'Keefe's book, The Real Festivus.

Festivus has entered the culture. There is also a book called Festivus, a Holiday for the Rest of Us, which deals with the mainstreaming of this celebration. And in 2008, in Illinois (but apparently not Washington) a Festivus pole was erected in the Capitol rotunda. Maybe two thousand years from now Jerry Seinfeld will be the patron saint of comedy. Maybe not. But at least, unlike the cheerless naysayers in Olympia, he knew how to laugh.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Marlene Dietrich "Shanghai Express"

"It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." This 1932 pre-code classic, directed by Joseph von Sterberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook and Anna May Wong, is one of the early greats of the last century. Dietrich plays a woman who, after losing her love after a silly stunt to make him prove the strength of his affection, becomes a "coaster" – a woman who makes her living by her wits along the coast of China. Boarding the coastal express from Peiping to Shanghai, her love, military surgeon Captain Donald Harvey learns that she is now none other than the notorious Shanghai Lily.

Sternberg and Dietrich collaborated on seven films. It is easy to see why they liked working together. Dietrich's genuine charisma on stage and off is the stuff of legends, and she is in top form here. Sternberg is limited by the technical capabilities of the era. There are, for instance, no zooms. There is only one shot, a scene in a corridor, where the camera moves other than to pan left or right. But Sternberg knows how to use his lead, highlighting her pale beauty with dramatic poses, the use of shadow and spotlight, and the use of one black, one white, and one midtone-grey form in the foreground of most shots.

While the story does feature stock characters, the compulsive gambler, the prudish matron, and the corrupt and cowardly opium merchant, it also has witty lines, complex leads, and true drama. Along with our heroes, the mysterious Henry Chang (Walter Oland, a Swede, famous for his role as Charlie Chan) boards the train. Questioned early on by the clueless loudmouth gambler, Chang admits that he is only half Chinese, and he is not proud of his white ancestry. Also on the train is Hui Fei, (the Chinese-American trailblazer Anna May Wong) another courtesan who some viewers suspect was Lily's former lover. After the train is stopped by revolutionary forces, we learn that Chang is the rebel leader. He holds Captain Harvey hostage. Lily and Hui Fei each get a chance to shine in dealing with Chang, who himself is not an unsympathetic villain.

The movie features some interesting lines and takes some sophisticated shots at conventional hypocrisy. Hui Fei tangles with the boarding house matron, who assures her and Lily that she "only associates with ladies of the highest standards." While her standards turn out to be gossip and fawning over a silly pet dog, Hui Fei shows her mettle as she earns a government reward with some quick and practical action. Early on, Captain Harvey, who loves Lily but doesn't want to admit it, punches Chang for trying to take advantage and tells her that he "would have done it for anyone." Lily returns the favor, lying to Harvey that she too, "would have done it for anyone."

This film is a true joy to watch. It has long been unavailable on US-format DVD. (But see here.) It does play on occasion on Turner Classic Movies. And it is available here at Youtube:

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Nature's Most Varied Gemstone

Now that winter has arrived, it's the time for those of us in the north to think of snow. Indeed, some have already had their fill of it. Leaving New York the other day I enjoyed watching the snowfall from the cabin of my train car. The poster child for Radicals for Happiness has been enjoying making snow angels. Elsewhere, philosophers are debating whether snow is white. And the truth is, it is not. Snowflakes are crystals of ice, which itself is clear.

Ice crystals form the most varied of natural gemstones. They are gems, no less so than diamonds or amethyst, even if only delicate and ephemeral ones. And to truly enjoy them, one needs a good lens. Every child learns that each snowflake is unique. But we also think of them as flat and six-sided. But they can be flat, elongate, solid or round, triangular, six-sided, twelve-sided or shaped like a tetrahedron, or like the spiky jacks from the old-fashioned children's game.

Snowflakes are varied in a way that you just don't find with quartz or zircon. Yet they are not so permanent or easy to hold in your hand. But like over fifteen million other web surferes, you can take a look at a wonderful website that not only displays some beautiful images, but which also explains the myriad different types of snow and the conditions under which such kinds as prisms, plates, dendrites and rosettes form. Take a look at Cal Tech's snowflake website page, from which the images here have come.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Jodhaa Akbar" an Epic from India

I don't know the reason why I selected this movie, Jodhaa Akbar, from Netflix. I suspected it was from Ted, but I can't find the reference. [see here. -Ted] It is a truly breathtaking spectacle and has a theme that will appeal to all those who value personal integrity, honor, and bravery. In the 1550's, a benevolent emperor, Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar, has the ambition to unify Hindustan by peaceful means. The scenery is gorgeous, the characters are well crafted, and the plot is heroic in scale.

This movie will be roundly condemned by the usual militant supects because the hero is tolerant of all religions and even marries a Hindu while he himself is a Muslim. Some viewers may be critical of it for being too long (3 hrs 45 min) and for being subtitled, but I found neither to be distracting. This film is available on YouTube. For a detailed description you can read more about it at Wikipedia. I recommend it, unreservedly. There is no doubt that Bollywood can produce first rate, grand scale movies.
–Sam Erica

Here is the studio trailer:

And here is the first segment of the full length film with better sound and English subtitles:

Friday, December 19, 2008

Time Machine "The Big Unlove Era"

The rock band Time Machine (Машина времени, Mashina Vremeni) is considered, acording to Wikipedia, one of the "patriarchs" of Russian rock 'n' roll. Influenced by the Beatles, the group has been around since the late Sixties, with founder Andrei Makarevich as the frontman and lead singer. Their style has varied from rock and folk to blues and Eastern influences. I am no expert in Russian rock or Mashina Vremeni in particular. When I first heard their 1999 album, Hours and Signs (Часы и Знаки, Chasy i Znaki) the cynical and sophisticated hit "Big Unlove Era" (Эпоха большой нелюбви, Epokha Bolshoi Neljubvi) made an impression on me. With its funky base line and horns it sounds like the product of a cross between Pink Floyd and a big band from the swing era. I wouldn't venture a translation, although the line "A ja ne klient, a brat" means "I'm a brother, not a customer." The video will give you some hint of the theme.

(Click Эпоха большой нелюбви to find the video in case of a broken link.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bogart & Hepburn "The African Queen"

The African Queen is, perhaps, a flawless movie. Directed by John Huston, filmed on location in Africa, starring Katherine Hepburn as the naive missionary Rose Sayer and Humphrey Bogart, who won his only Oscar for his part, as steamboat captain Charlie Allnut, the 1951 film portrays their escapades escaping from German occupied Tanganyika during the First World War. (Bogart and Lauren Bacall were newly married. Bacall accompanied Bogart on the shoot and took home movies.) The African Queen entertains on several levels. It succeeds as adventure, drama, character study and love story.

Rose and her brother Samuel are lone Protestant missionaries in a remote native village visited monthly by captain Allnut, a scrappy "Canadian" (he has a New York accent) expatriate and alcoholic. Charlie warns them that war has broken out, and that the Germans are coming. Doing God's work, they choose to stay on. The Germans beat Samuel, and he dies from the shock. Rose relents, and after Charlie buries her brother the survivors set off down river for civilization. They face a series of adventures against man and nature. when all seems lost they emerge on lake Tanganyika only to face the Luisa, a German gunboat built on the lake and commanding its waters.

While much of the film consists of discreet episodes, such as the famous encounter with leeches, and Rose's learning what it is to be a woman as she climaxes riding the rapids, unity is provided by the interaction of this couple thrown together by adversity. She inspires him to overcome his vulgar vices, he inspires her to overcome her Christian virtues. We come to care deeply about the couple as they come to care about each other. Just as the Luisa runs a circuit on the lake, the movie comes full circle, and ends with the heros blown out of the frying pan, and into the water.

This movie should be a part of your video library. You can buy it or rent it or watch it here in full on YouTube:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"The Lady from Shanghai" Femmes Fatales III

While it proved unpopular with contemporary audiences (Welles had Hayworth play against type, and had her cut and bleach her trademark red locks) and the studio cut almost an hour from the film, The Lady from Shanghai has fared well since its 1946 release and is now considered among the greats of film noir. Married, but in the midst of a divorce, Orson Welles directed and starred oposite Rita Hayworth in this, their only collaboration. While the story is somewhat disjointed and much is left to the viewer to guess at and fill in, the work is suspenseful and exotic. It keeps one's attention, even if it's not fully amenable to comprehension.

Merchant marine Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara (Welles) crosses paths with the elegant Elsa (Hayworth) as she rides through central park in a horse-drawn carriage. Moments later O'Hara saves her from an attempted mugging, using a gun she was carrying, but had tossed aside, explaining to him afterwards that she didn't know how to use it. As he escorts her to safely to her car garage, they talk of crime, and he talks of defense attorneys, and how they can get off anyone with enough money. Is the San Francisco lawyer, Arthur Bannister, who just got a man acquitted for shooting his wife five time in the head the world's greatest lawyer, or the worlds greatest criminal? She offers him a job piloting her and her husband's yacht around South America. Thinking he's making a fool of himself, he say's he's not interested. He rips up her card. As he walks off, two men we'll see later in the film step out of the shadows and walk off. The garage attendant identifies Elsa, who has driven off, the rich and beautiful wife – of none other than Arthur Bannister.

Hayworth is in top form. Her performance in Gilda is unbeatable, but there she plays a jilted lover putting on a tough face. Here she plays the femme fatale, the cold, calculating killer in chic clothing. Having lived in the fleshpots of coastal China, her occupation in such ports as Shanghai going unidentified, Elsa is a woman who "knows how to take care of herself." Part of that taking care of herself is knowing how to appear helpless, to play the victim. The good girl "doesn't smoke." But she knows how to light a cigarette. She "doesn't know how to shoot." But she carries a gun. Michael senses the contradiction. But he too is a man of the world, having killed a man in the Spanish Civil War. He knows that he should know better. But Elsa, or his "Rosalie" as he calls her, is just too enticing a temptation. He knows it's a game, and he figures he'll play.

The film uses footage of Welles' unreleased South American good-will tour from the War. The story ends in San Francisco where scenes were shot on location. The thrilling final scene in a funhouse is a cinematographic classic. Hayworth is like an exotic animal, a caged white tigress whose grace and quiet beauty belie her underlying bestiality. One can easily see flashes of Sharon Stone's Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct. Welles' work is a tour de force, even if it is hamfistedly edited by studio censors.

The film's minor flaws actually have one accidental benefit. The viewer will want to watch the film over again to figure out just what he might have missed the first time around. And there is a lot that you will notice if you pay close attention, homages to Hayworth's Gilda, recurring themes, a cameo of Errol Flynn. This film is fascinating, and you will want to watch it again and again. I have.

This film should be rented or made a part of your permanent library. It is available from Netflix. Here is a highlight from YouTube:

Here are parts two (lafrshaa) and three (lafrshab).

Read Femmes Fatales Part I and Part II

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Tango del Pecado" Calle 13

I first became aware of reggaetón almost a decade ago when my ceiling came close to caving in. My upstair neighbors were having a party. The salsa was rather loud, but it was a Friday, and I didn't mind. Not until they started jummping up and down in unison, and I watched the paint and plaster pop off the walls as the celing lurched with each leap. "No, yo no soy policía," I had to explain, with my large frame and Irish ancestry, as I knocked on the door and asked them to lower the music. It was the immanent collapse, not the volume, that was bothering me. Reggaetón is a loud Jamaican-influenced Latin dance style that might not be very familiar or accessible to Americans who live outside urban areas or who don't watch MTV or Univision. Yet it has its charms.

Calle 13 is a self-described "urban" duo out of Puerto Rico. Two half brothers, René "Residente" Pérez Joglar and Eduardo José "Vistante" Cabra Martínez sing and perform hit songs in the broader hip hop genre that show the influence of salsa, jazz, electronica and other traditional styles. Their 2007 hit Tango del Pecado ("Tango of Sin") merges a tango rythm and the base reggaetón beat with ingenious comic lyrics to create a smart catchy pop song that could most easily be described as Eminem en Español. As with that domestically controversial norteamericano, their socially provocative lyrics (mocking the FBI in one song and singing "to the North" (Pa'l Norte) in another will not please certain American listeners. But one need not approve of their lyrics to appreciate their musical innovation.

Here is a description of the video at Wikipedia.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Cactus Flower" Matthau, Bergman & Hawn

Based on the hit Broadway play which starred Lauren Bacall and Brenda Vaccaro, the 1969 film, Cactus Flower, with Ingrid Bergman, Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn is a lighthearted romantic comedy which earned its female leads Golden Globes and wan newcomer Hawn an Oscar in her debut supporting role. The film tells the story of a philandering dentist whose affair facilitating alibis catch up with him when he decides to play it straight. He has lied to his girlfriend, telling her that he is unhappily married, when he is in fact single, but does not want to commit. Now he not only needs to find a pretend wife, but he also has to divorce her.

Bergman plays successfully against type. Her go-go dancing scene in the film inspired the infamous Elaine Benes dancing scene in TV's Seinfeld. Rick Lenz, who plays Igor Sullivan, Hawn's handsome neighbor, sounds eerily like James Stewart. The writing is funny, if typical sit-com fare. Matthau and Hawn fall out of love but each falls into another. The youngsters are in many ways more mature than their elders. The ending is happy and plausible. In the end, the cactus blooms. This film makes few demands, but it is a rewarding delight. The film plays occasionally on cable, including Turner Classic Movies, where I first saw it. It is also available on DVD and here at YouTube:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The RuPaul Presidency?

Journalist, author, Broadway critic, and talking head Mark Steyn (recently acquitted of hate crime charges in Canada, and author of the brilliant best-selling book America Alone on the geopolitics of jihad) describes Barack Obama as America's first two-dimensional presidential candidate. The performance artist RuPaul, best known for his 1990's hit song "Supermodel (You Better Work)" has picked up on this theme, and shows that if it's a matter of appearances, Obama will be our first drag-queen president, if not our first black one. It looks like the next four years will be a golden age for comedy, if little else.

Here is an excerpt of Steyn's comments from the November 8th post to his blog, SteynOnline:

In Tokyo last week, over 1,000 people signed a new petition asking the Japanese government to permit marriages between human beings and cartoon characters. "I am no longer interested in three dimensions. I would even like to become a resident of the two-dimensional world," explained Taichi Takashita. "Therefore, at the very least, would it be possible to legally authorize marriage with a two-dimensional character?"

Get back to me on that Tuesday night. We'll know by then whether an entire constitutional republic has decided to contract marriage with a two-dimensional character and to attempt to take up residence in the two-dimensional world. For many of his supporters, Barack Obama is an idea. He offers "hope, not fear." "Hope" of what? "Hope" of "change." OK, but "change" to what? Ah, well, there you go again, getting all hung up on three-dimensional reality, when we've moved way beyond that. I don't know which cartoon character Taichi Takashita is eyeing as his betrothed, but up in the sky Obamaman is flying high, fighting for Hope, Change and a kind of Post-Modern American Way.

The two-dimensional idea of President Obama is seductive: To elect a young black man of Kenyan extraction and Indonesian upbringing offers redemption both for America's original sin (slavery) and for the more recent perceived sins of President Bush – his supposed enthusiasm for sticking it to foreigners generally, and the Muslim world in particular. And no, I'm not saying he's Muslim. It's worse than that: He's a pasty-faced European – at least in his view of state power, welfare and taxation.

Here is RuPaul's hit video from the 1990's.

And here is MadTV's musical parody from the 2008 Democratic campaign:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Canciones: "Cucurrucucú Paloma" & "Volver"

Although I am a huge fan of Pedro Almodóvar, I cannot recommend all of his films. Some are simply much too dark, and Talk to Her, which won an Oscar for best screenplay, is one of these. The heroine, were she allowed to be one, is gored by a bull, and dies in a coma. A second plot revolves about a deranged male nurse who rapes another woman in a coma. There is nothing to celebrate or admire. Yet as always, Almodóvar's mechanical skills are top notch. And as is his wont he interjects this otherwise morbid work with a beautiful musical interlude. In a flashback we see the bullfighter and her boyfriend at a party. There the Spanish musician Caetano Veloso gives a haunting rendition of Cucurrucucú Paloma by Tomás Méndez which we can enjoy as an excerpt, available here at YouTube:

Another wonderful song, Volver, from Almodóvar's much better movie of the same name, (see here) is also available. Here we see Penelope Cruz lip sinking to the voice of Estrella Morente. But that is easy to forgive.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Orson Welles "Touch of Evil"

If you are a fan of one of the best shows on TV, House, M.D., with Hugh Laurie, you have probably seen the poster for the Orson Welles film, Touch of Evil, hanging in the office of Dr. Gregory House's best friend, oncologist James Wilson. If you haven't seen House, then you should, and you can either rent or buy the series to watch it from the beginning (recommended) or jump in now and watch a recent episode here at Why the poster of Touch of Evil? Perhaps it's just a classic film that the writers thought would give Wilson depth. Or maybe there is an implied comparison between House, a curmudgeonly cynic who walks with a cane, and Orson Welles' cane-using Hank Quinlan? But Welles' captain Quinlan has moved beyond cynicism into taking law and life into his own hands. (Well, one could argue that Gregory House has done that too, but he has so far not framed anyone for his own murders.) In any case, if you haven't yet watched the film, this too is a classic you should not miss.

Directed by Welles, Touch of Evil, 1958, is one of the most popular masterpieces of film noir. The movie stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, as well as Welles, and features appearances by Joseph Cotten, Dennis Weaver, Mercedes McCambridge, Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor. The opening scene, an uninterrupted 3 1/2 minute long single-cut shot from a crane depicting a border crossing that literally ends with a bang, is a classic Wellesian cinematographic accomplishment.

Like many of Welles' films, such as the difficult The Magnificent Ambersons, the work was drastically cut by the studio without his consent before its release. But Welles did write a long memo to Universal regarding his intentions for the production. This memo survived, and, in 1998, after a legal battle with his estate, a restoration based on archival material was printed which remains as faithful as possible to his intentions with the surviving footage. The film does seem to shift abruptly at some points, but there is much less confusion than in Welles' other continuity-challenged film noir masterpiece, The Lady From Shanghai. Rent or buy the 1998 'director's cut' today.

Here is the famous opening seen from YouTube:

"Orlando" Tilda Swinton

Sally Potter's 1992 film, Orlando, based on the roman à clef by Virginia Woolfe, is a haunting and visually stunning work of art that combines elements of fantasy, period piece and social commentary to make a satisfying whole. The actress Tilda Swinton, perhaps most widely known for her role as the Ice Queen Jadis in the movie version of C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, defines the film which is a lengthy study of the androgynous immortal British nobleman she portrays. Billy Zane plays Orlando's 19th century lover and Quentin Crisp, author of The Naked Civil Servant, then aged 83, plays the elderly Queen Elizabeth I.

While certainly more a cerebral excercise than an action flick, the story maintains interest with several short parts set in ages from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries. Orlando, born a nobleman in Tudor England, becomes a paramour of the aging queen who grants him an estate with the proviso that he not fade, that Orlando not age. Orlando complies, falling into a deathlike sleep every few decades to awaken rejuvenated, and, after one transformation, as a woman. With gay icon Quenton Crisp playing Elizabeth and Swinton playing a person who changes gender, this has been seen as a gay film. But Crisp simply plays Elizabeth as Elizabeth, with no camp and no agenda. Orlando's sex change is treated matter-of-factly and Orlando's love interests are heterosexual to his or her gender of the moment. Any attempt to shoe-horn this timeless film into a serving a parochial modern agenda is a disservice to it and its audience.

Filmed in England and Khiva, Uzbekistan (as a stand in for Constantinople) the film is full of atmosphere. Eschewing the 'Technicolor' cinematography of such films as Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchette, or The Other Boleyn Girl, with Scarlet Johanssen, with their spectra of saturated colors and casts chosen in part for their Hollywood good looks, director Sally Potter shrewdly relies on simple and authentic settings and on actors with character to achieve its visual effect. Romantic touches are achieved through intelligent direction, not bootleg shortcuts.

Orlando, based in part on the life of Vita Sackville West, (portrait by Laszlo) is considered Woolfe's most accessible novel and this adaptation admirably translates her literature to the screen. With its sly wit, subtle humor, gothic beauty, intelligent writing, interesting cast, charming settings and thought-provoking story, the film entertains successfully on many levels. It is available for purchase or rental. Here is the studio trailer from YouTube:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Greg Bear "The Forge of God"

President Crockerman asked, "Do you believe in God?" Without a moment's hesitation, the Alien replied "We believe in Punishment."

Greg Bear, born in 1951, is a Hugo and Nebula award winning author of some three dozen novels and short story collections. A writer of hard science fiction, he often focuses on biology, especially diseases and microbiology. His Nebula winning Darwin's Radio and its sequel Darwin's Children explore political repression, retroviruses and speciation. Vitals deals with bacteria as communal organisms, as well as devling entertainingly into conspiracy theories. (You will never guess who the KGB has kept alive in a fishtank in the middle of modern Manhattan.) His Hugo winning Blood Music (expanded from a Nebula Winning novella) portrays an apocalyptic transformation of the nature of the self brought on by the escape of genetically enhanced human blood cells down a bathtub drain.

One of his best reviewed books, The Forge of God, deals not with microbiology, but with the Fermi Paradox. If the galaxy is full of alien life, then why aren't they here yet? Why have aliens not yet visited the earth? The answer quickly becomes evident. First, the Jovian moon Europa disappears. Then mountains appear overnight where there was none before in Australia and in Death Valley. Robots promising a golden age emerge from the Australian mountain. In America an enigmatic alien is found near death, apologizing for bearing bad news, and telling the president its simple punitive theology.

Bear is not only a great story teller, he is an artist of literary caliber. His works feature complex interwoven plots with twists that surprise the reader yet fit seamlessly together without resorting to the arbitrary deus ex machina. His characters are well developed, strongly individuated. In Forge of God, the president, a likeable man, is driven to the edge of insanity by the revelation that the world will soon end. His response is religious in form, but Bear does not portray him as some mindless religious stereotype, and, in a touch of sophistication, the populist preacher that Crockerman summons to advise him in fact doubts the appropriateness of a religious response to the physical threat and turns to the president's science advisors to admit that he is out of his league and that the Presdient could perhaps use some more conventional strategic advice.

Whether likening squiggles of toothpaste to little blue tadpoles in the sink or graphically comparing the City of Los Angeles, its citizens transformed into blobs of jelly and sentient fungal growths by a plague, to a vision from a Max Ernst painting, Bear uses vivid concrete images that often approach the poetic in their evocativeness. One can form a detailed mental image of his characters' physical traits and their bearing and gestures. Conflict is well motivated, antagonists act not just out of opposition, but because of an alternate, if mistaken view of the good. Psychology is made apparent through telling thoughts and dialog. Yet facts not known to the characters are not revealed to the reader until they become clear to the protagonists. This maintains a sense of realism and especially of suspense. Is the dying alien in league with the supposed robot benefactors? Is the earth truly at risk? The aliens provoke paranoia in some and disbelief in others. What, we ask, are the plots within the plots?

If you have not read Bear, you can think of him as combining the fast-paced plots of Larry Niven and his knack for contemporary social commentary with the analytic depth and literary quality of Frank Herbert. While I have not been able to get into his The Way, Queen of Angels, or Songs of Earth and Power series, I have thorougly enjoyed all the books of his which I have read past the first few dozen pages. The apocalptic Forge of God, with its epic and very differrent but highly complimentary sequel, Anvil of Stars, is a good place to start.

Read the excellent article on Bear at Wikipedia. Check out his official website. And pick up one of his books, today. The painting above, Into The Forge of God, by Alan Gutierrez depicts the launch of a NASA probe into Jupiters atmosphere and was used on the cover of Bear's novel.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Heroes" David Bowie & Brian Eno

While it failed to chart in the US and only reached 24 in the UK, David Bowie's and Brian Eno's collaborative single "Heroes" has become one of Bowie's most enduringly popular songs, widely regarded as one of the top 100 pop songs of all time. The track features inspirational lyrics and innovative recording methods, and this as well as its conception in Berlin in 1977 as a love song for a couple separated by The Wall has secured it a place in the cultural history of the Twentieth Century.

Originally conceived as an instrumental track, "Heroes" was the intended title for the peice even before Bowie composed the lyrics. The guitars, percusion, synthesizers and intentional feedback and reverb (see Wikipedia) give the song a Phil Spector-like "Wall of Sound" effect. Bowie, not the most dynamic of singers, begins the song merely speaking the lyrics. He is recorded with one microphone for the introduction. As the power of his voice grows, another microphone was opened up at twenty feet, and as he belts out the climax a third mic is recording him at a fifty foot distance. Although Bowie goes from talking to yelling without passing through what could truly be called song, this lends his performance an everyman atmosphere which only heightens the epic effect.

The song has been recorded in English and German as well as several other languages and the conservative American magazine National Review has listed it as 21st in its list of all time conservative rock songs. It has continued to be adapted for use in commercials and as a theme for popular TV shows until today. When it was released, even though its creators realized its epic romantic and triumphant nature, they did suffer from this moral cowardice; they added scare quotes to lend the title an ironic air. Given their achievement, I vote we forgive them. Given the end of the Cold War, the fall of The Wall, and the triumph of freedom, I suggest we imagine the quote marks as pairs of fingers raised in a double sign of victory.

Here is the original video with the English lyric studio-version release:

Man of the Century

Johnny Twennies, columnist for the New York Sun Telegram, wears a fedora, sends telegrams, whistles for taxis, and he thinks his girlfriend is just swell. Of course, after 27 dates Samantha's still wondering when she's going to get kissed. Johnny is a man of his times. His times are the late 1920's, even though he's living in 1990's New York. Cheerfully oblivious to the coarse, cynical and sexually liberated modern world, Johnny refuse to see the ugliness or surrender to the unhappiness around him. He woos his girl, does his job, teaches the bullies a lesson, shows the mob who's boss, and shows himself a hero, all without breaking a sweat.

This film is a welcome treat. The writing is witty. The story works just fine as either farce or straight up. Double entendres and screwball comedy abound. Frank Gorshin (TV Batman's The Riddler) and famed Manhattan night club performer Bobby Short play small roles. The black and white cinematography lends to the atmosphere and allows of certain artful touches. The period piece musical scenes are delightful. This film is a cult favorite, and bears repeated viewing. It should have won its star and co-writer Gibson Frazier and its director an co-writer Adam Abraham an award. It's a great date movie. Rent it today. Here is a trailer from YouTube: